When is it a joke, and when is it harassment?

Office banter in Connecticut could quickly verge on inappropriate, and people be able to recognize when it is actually a form of harassment.

Employees often form close ties with each other. In Connecticut, many businesses encourage positive, appropriate working relationships among staff, as it keeps office morale high and could even result in better job performance.

Unfortunately, some people begin to feel "too close" to co-workers, making inappropriate comments or suggestive remarks. It may be brushed off as "just a joke," but is it? When are those remarks legally OK, and when are they actually harassment?

Defining harassment

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as a form of discrimination. It takes place when there is any unwelcome conduct, ranging from comments to physical assault, based on one or more of the following:

  • Color, race or national origin
  • Age (for those 40 and older)
  • Sex and/or pregnancy

Harassment in the workplace could come from anyone: a supervisor, a co-worker or even a non-employee. Also, anyone who is offended could cite harassment, not just the person who is directly the victim of the incident.

When is it illegal?

Typically, conduct is not illegal if it involves a slight annoyance or an isolated incident that is not very serious. The EEOC states that the illegal piece comes in when either the conduct creates a hostile work environment or if enduring the harassment becomes a condition of employment. There do not need to be any actual economic damages at stake in order for the harassment to be illegal.

However, simply because an act is not illegal does not mean employees cannot take action. Making an official record of the incident with human resources could, at the very least, provide a foundation in the event that the behavior continues and grows into something more serious.

Determining liability

When harassment takes place between a supervisor and an employee, and the action results in some type of adverse employment action, the employer is liable. For example, if an employee is fired because he or she reported harassment, the employer could be held liable. The exceptions are if the employee did not take advantage of any corrective actions the company provided, or if the company reasonable tried to prevent and correct the behavior.

Reporting harassment

Most companies have their own policies for reporting and handling harassment. It could involve going to the human resources department or a supervisor. When these fail to bring about remedy, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities encourages people to file a complaint with the department within 180 days of the incident. This will result in an investigation and could lead to further legal action.

Proving harassment is not always easy, but it is possible. Anyone suffering from it should document as much as possible; for example, save emails, and note dates and witnesses. People who have questions about this issue should speak with an employment law attorney in Connecticut.